November 15, 2007

We get the government we deserve

“Union County Freeloaders” was the message emblazoned across this photo dipicted on t-shirts worn by protesters during a May 10, 2007 vigil which ended with a visit to a freeholder meeting.

The County of Union has recently settled a wrongful death lawsuit in the matter of Edward Sinclair, Jr., the 17 year old who died in their Juvenile Detention Center on May 10, 2003.

After the death of Sinclair, the State’s Child Advocate released a blistering report of the facility which stated that “Union County’s “disregard” of rules let the teen hang himself. The advocate went on to report that the county “set the stage for his death”. The Child Advocate also stated that the county had a disregard for basic human rights and held "juveniles" three to four to a cell for 18 - 20 hours a day in which they ate and slept in 8 x 10 cockroach-infested cells.”

The Juvenile Detention Center is a basic service of County government, instead of building a much needed new facility or even doing needed repairs on the old facility, the county chose instead to construct new buildings to house county employees. The state directed the county to fix the sprinkler head that Sinclair hanged himself on, 17 months prior to his being put in the filthy cell. The county never bothered to make the recommended repairs.

The county also ignored pleas from the corrections officers union. The Star-Ledger reported on May 13, 2003: “A lawyer for Council 8 representing 30 officers at the detention center said the union had filed numerous complaints with the county, warning that “Something like this would happen because of the overcrowding and under staffing” at the facility. “For the last couple of months the union has been documenting and complaining about the conditions there, but I don’t think they really addressed our concerns,” said attorney Michael Bukosky.

In a November 30, 2000 Worrall newspaper article it was reported that after spending more than $2 million the freeholder’s scrapped its plans to construct a new detention center. At that time freeholder board chairman Daniel Sullivan said the cost to build a new center “is just not worth it” given a declining population at the current facility.

According to records obtained by the Union County Watchdog Association through the Open Public Records Act it shows the center was at over capacity at the time of Sullivan’s statement. In the same article Freeholder Louis Mingo, stated he did not want to “waste a lot of money if we don’t have to. We want to make sure that if we make an investment, its on solid ground.”

The cost at the time to build a new center was projected to be $20 million. The cost of the current project is roughly $40 million - plus a 17 year old human life.

Other costs to date associated with scrapping the original 1998 plan:

Sinclair law-suit county attorney’s fees and settlement to date: $1,110,000; State mandated updates to make the old facility clean and safe(r): Approximately $800,000; Maintaining the state mandated cap on the facility and housing youths out of county: $555,952

Total wasted money since the death of Edward Sinclair, Jr.: $2,465,952

The future of the 42-year-old detention center, which is located above the county employee parking garage is undecided. The UCWA recommends the freeholders move their offices to the facility and have freeholder meetings up there to remind them and the public of what happens when government can’t be held accountable.

The new detention center is 8 months past due from its last promised opening date. With the settlement of this lawsuit only the Union County taxpayers have been held accountable for the death of Edward Sinclair, Jr. No employee or elected official of the state or the county has been held accountable for Sinclair’s death, the condition of this facility or the treatment of countless other juveniles. No one has been written up, reprimanded, fined, suspended or voted out of office.

Freeholder Daniel Sullivan was the highest vote getter this past Election Day. We get the government we deserve.

In memory of Eddie Sinclair, Jr.

Eddie's family and friends visited a freeholder meeting shortly after his death.